I have heard the story of the Prodigal Son many times and something always seems to be missing. Maybe it’s the culture; I don’t know. Can you explain it? [The story is found in Luke 15:11-32. Please read it.]
I appreciated the reader’s question, for the main point is normally overlooked.
As a background, Jesus taught according to the culture of the day and often used common illustrations from everyday life. For example, He spoke of rocks (rock of our salvation); water (living water); and food (bread of life). He also used parables to teach lessons, such as the sower and the seed (accepting or rejecting truth); the narrow path to heavenly rewards and the broad path to destruction (eternal life in heaven or hell); the mustard seed, and the weeds among the wheat (kingdom of heaven); and of course, forgiveness and acceptance (the prodigal son).
The parable of the Prodigal Son has also been called many things; among them: The Lost Son, The Prodigal Father, and Restoration. But here are three cultural concepts to help us understand the story.
Note: “Pharisees” in this article refer to only hypocritical Pharisees – not to all Pharisees.
- Normally a child receives an inheritance at a parent’s death. To ask for our inheritance prior to death reveals a rebellious, selfish, and/or an immature character. It also reveals disdain for the parents. Dr. Ken Bailey lived and taught in the Middle East for over forty years and said that for a person to ask for his inheritance prematurely was tantamount to wishing his father to be dead; and the request would never have been granted. This suggests that the story may not have been historical; but, as was common with rabbinical teaching, was a spontaneous story or narrative to address a specific situation.
- Pigs were considered the lowest of unclean animal, and it was unthinkable for a Jew to live with and feed them.
- The father represents God and forgiveness, while the older brother portrays hypocritical rejection.
Keep in mind that Jesus told this story in response to the Pharisees when they accused Him of eating with sinners. Therefore, we realize that the younger son represented the sinners (tax collectors, harlots, beggars, etc.) whom the Pharisees rejected, while the older brother represented the self-righteous folk (including some Pharisees, well-to-do Rabbis, Sadducees, et.al.) who were accosting Jesus.
Let’s speed through Jesus’ word-picture: the young man obtains and squanders his wealth; a regional famine hits the land; the man sinks into the slough of despair and eats pigs’ food; he is rejected by his former comrades; in humility he comes to his senses and asks to return home; the father prepares a feast as he would for an honored guest; the son is restored to full son-ship; and the older brother has a conniption.
Now we slow down. These Pharisees were not interested in the redemption of the lower classes—either into society or into heaven. They were interested only in promoting their own importance. This is validated in Matthew 23:23 where the Pharisees made sure that people knew they tithed even on vegetable seeds, but they didn’t live up to the Mosaic Law. They were overtly concerned with justice and equity, but they were blind to God’s desires and the people’s needs.
With the Pharisees’ focus on their own status and prestige, they could not understand when Jesus told them the most important commandment was to love the Lord God with all our heart (which incorporated the first four Commandments), or the second most important which was to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (which incorporated the last six Commandments).
The climax of the parable is that the older brother (representing ungodly Pharisees) was angry when the father (representing God) forgave and honored a brother (representing low-class sinners) who had totally “blown it” in life. The brother thought that the young kid should be punished!
The main point is that punishment had already taken place, repentance had been made, and the brother needed reconciliation to family and society. It was the older brother who needed to change his outlook on life.
Conclusion: let us humbly forgive, accept, and restore those who have repented. Let’s never reject those who do not match up to our status in life.